The Promise of Prague

Bankers, Bono, and Bomb Throwers Battle It Out on the Streets of the Czech Republic

But Oxfam International charges that unrealistic conditions and weak management have kept this program from being as successful as the World Bank claims. Last year in Zambia, after three years of HIPC debt relief, $222 million went to debt payment; only half that went to health care. In Uganda, held up as a success story, $55 million pays debts and $102 million goes to health care. Still, the life expectancy is only 40.5 years, down from 46 years in 1970, according to the UNDP's 1998 development report.


It is with these numbers in mind that on Sunday morning Jubilee and Oxfam's pilgrims climb the steep steps toward Letna park, a green plateau that overlooks the city from the north. They carry 19 large white crosses, each representing a thousand of the children who die each day. A giant granite sculpture of Josef Stalin once stood on this spot, but it has been replaced by public artwork—a giant red metronome. Taking a microphone, the South African representative from the World Council of Churches gestures toward it and says, "Each swing reminds us that with every stroke another one of us has died."

Beneath the metronome, a thousand activists gather for a Czech-style street funeral, some bearing humble foot-long wooden crosses, others black velvet poles crowned with masks sculpted by a Danish artist to represent "messengers from the global south"—those who cannot be there in person to protest, the powerless who are waiting to hear if the bank and the fund can be moved.

"Because of international solidarity we were able to bring down apartheid," says the WCC spokesperson. "Globalized economics is nothing but global apartheid." He cites the World Bank's own annual report, released in Prague, which showed that "the gap between rich and poor countries is 10 times wider than it was 30 years ago, that 100 million more people are living in poverty than a decade ago." Nearby, Nagase, a Japanese Buddhist monk, his robe wrapping around him with the wind, says that by coming to Prague to join the demonstrations he is "practicing compassion," which he hopes the IMF and World Bank will do as well.


Sunday night, a welcoming reception for finance ministers is held inside the Prague Congress Centre, a gloomy late-socialist-era structure that has been freshly redecorated to host these 14,000 promoters of capitalism. Though there are symposia galore, it's at informal meetings, where the captains of industry eat, drink, and deal, that the real work is supposedly done. Wine and beer flow freely. Ham legs are picked to the bone. Boiled potatoes and beef goulash slither together on small plates. A minister from Ethiopia remarks that things are slow to change in his country; the war with Eritrea has only recently concluded. Asked about the World Bank and IMF's treatment of developing nations, he says, "No comment." The same words are echoed by a minister from Barbados, cheesing it up for a photo, and a representative of Mali, reaching for a dry Swedish meatball.

The goodie bags provided to conference goers alone could probably service debt for any of their nations: two CDs of Czech music, a calendar with moody black-and-white photos of Prague eerily absent of people, a boxed set of maps, annual reports, guide books, train schedules, and a warning to the ministers not to wear the plastic conference tag in public, lest they become targets for activists.

A 20-minute metro ride away, in CKD Elektrotechnika, an abandoned hangarlike factory, activists throw their own party, one that had to be moved from venue to venue five times as club owners grew fearful of violence. The party is all festivity, no violence. Hechos Contra el Decor, a band from Madrid, is Euro-dancing and Euro-hip-hopping the sweaty crowd into a mosh pit frenzy. White Europeans sport dreads, German cyclists display anarchy stickers, French accordion musicians entertain. There are no hors d'ouevres, only orange soda, beer, and Bartlett pears for sale. When Hechos covers the '60s classic "Freedom," the lingua franca is English and the words send fists and bodies triumphantly into the air.

Freedom is a complicated word in this country. Iva Pekarkova, author of Truck Stop Rainbows, a novel about a Czech woman under communism who prostitutes herself to truckers to cross the Czech border into Germany, says the arrival of the free market has been a mixed blessing. "Literature has been replaced by pop culture. More people can travel, but more people are addicted to drugs." On one point she is unequivocal. "What's different now? We have our freedom."


Havel, apparently, has not forgotten that the ultimate freedom is protest. Heeding concerns about where the anticipated 20,000 activists might lay their heads, he has helped arrange for Strahov Stadium, a monstrous cement structure that has held communist rallies and hosted the Rolling Stones, to morph into a tent city complete with showers, food vendors, and, for those interested, Native American teepees made by a local Czech company. Many activists avoid it, fearing the government will slam down the gates and trap them inside.

Monday afternoon, standing in the windy stadium, which can hold 250,000, Mariani Federico and Andrea Paganani of Rome explain why they missed last night's party. The demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank have a lot to do with borders—who decides how much money and which goods move across which nations' borders and under what conditions. With the rise of global surveillance to combat global activism, entering the Czech Republic became an ordeal for many activists.

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